When Carol Latham’s firm, Thermagon, underwent explosive growth, she faced a problem familiar to many entrepreneurs: where to find the workforce she needed to deliver to her expanding number of highly demanding customers.
She was based in Cleveland, Ohio and there wasn’t a vast army of skilled, eager employees on her doorstep. So she did what entrepreneurs do: instead of complaining, she found a solution. She hired, she says, almost anyone she could find – in most cases, Latinos and Hispanics with little or no work experience and pretty sketchy educational backgrounds. She persuaded the Cleveland education board to send her teachers and she sent her workforce to classrooms set up in her offices, on company time, until they were numerate and literate. As the company grew, so did every employee.
Today, Carol looks back at that period with immense affection: it was a wonderful thing to bring a product to market, she says. But what she never expected was how rewarding it would be to change peoples’ lives. It was, she says, the icing on the cake.
I’m reminded of Carol’s story every time I hear a business owner complaining about the poor educational quality of the British workforce. This happens with lamentable regularity: everyone from Tesco CEO Sir Terry Leahy to the petrol pump manager seems to feel entitled to a ready supply of work-ready, eager beaver employees. But, as Carol discovered, the fact that you can’t find such folk may not be a problem but an opportunity.
I’ve always had a rule in my companies: you aren’t allowed to complain unless you can propose at least one solution. That’s pretty much how I feel about the stand-off between businesses and schools. Don’t complain about it: fix it. That’s what Carol Latham did – and that’s how she built a world-class company.
You can read Margaret Heffernan’s full story in the next edition of Real Business.